The Law & Order Constitution

Read more about the People’s ConstitutionRead more about the constitutional battle and compare the constitutions

Most of the constitutional crises which convulsed Rhode Island during the century and a quarter following adoption of the 1843 constitution would have been avoided had the People’s Constitution prevailed. Thomas Dorr lost the battle, but much that he proposed was added to the organic law of the state over the remainder of the 19th century. The constitution that emanated from the deliberations in 1842 remained the state’s basic law until 1986. The document was similar in most respects to the Landholders’ constitution rejected by Rhode Island voters in March 1842. A referendum on this constitution was held on November 21-23, 1842, although it was boycotted by the supporters of Thomas Dorr, who was living in exile in New Hampshire. In a relatively small turnout, the so-called Law and Order Constitution was adopted by a vote of 7,024 to 51. African Americans secured a separate referendum on their right to vote as a reward for their help in suppressing Thomas Dorr’s rebellion. A concession was also given to women by insertion of a clause that allowed non-electors to be members of a school committee. A most important and unfortunate omission was the failure of the delegates to provide for secrecy of the ballot.

Freeholders needed only one year’s residence to vote on all political and financial questions at every level of government. Native born citizens who lacked real estate were subject to a two-year residency qualification, but if these landless citizens paid taxes on $134.00 worth of personal property they could also vote in all elections. In addition to these fully enfranchised voters (i.e. those who paid taxes on at least $134.00 worth of real or personal property) the new constitution established a second-class category of native-born electors known as registry voters. These individuals could be enfranchised either by paying at least $1.00 in taxes or by performing at least one day of volunteer service in the militia per year, but registry voters could not participate in council elections in the city of Providence nor could they vote on financial questions in any municipality. The final and most demanding electoral category was reserved for naturalized citizens. They were still subjected to the old real estate qualification — a restriction which made Rhode Island’s new basic law the most nativistic in the nation from the moment of its inception. The nativistic freehold qualification was removed in 1888 by the Bourn Amendment (VII) under sustained pressure from an “Equal Rights Movement” that invoked the memory of Thomas Dorr.

Apportionment clauses of the new basic law underwent significant change. In the House the nine expanding towns immediately obtained fifty-two percent of the state’s representatives (36 of 69), an allocation even more generous than the forty-six percent allowed by the People’s Constitution. Nevertheless, the upper limit of twelve seats for any municipality regardless of size immediately deprived Providence of two seats and checked any growth in its political power. The expanding industrial towns paid dearly for their gain in the lower house, because the most striking alteration in the new constitution was the veto power given to the rural towns in the Senate. In place of the at-large method that prevailed under the charter and the regional districts proposed in the People’s and Landholders’ Constitutions, a town system was established whereby the lieutenant governor and each municipality, regardless of size, had one senate vote. Conservative rural members of the Law and Order coalition were thereby rewarded with a veto over the more prosperous manufacturing and expanding towns.

Other inequities in the Law & Order constitution such as the omission of a secret ballot, bank reform and provisions for convening future constitutional conventions would have to be addressed in the decades that followed.

Summary authored by Dr. Patrick T. Conley,
constitutional historian and co-author of The Rhode Island State Constitution: A Reference Guide (2010)